MONGOLIA 1968

Our stay in the Mongolian People’s Republic made a lasting impression on us, in spite of the discomfort of the intense cold, the system of unbroken surveillance universal in the Soviet bloc, and material deprivations. The hardships tend to be forgotten with time, and our memory recalls rather the pure, rarefied air of the Asian steppe, the bright sunshine for 300 days in the year, even on the coldest days, the brilliant colours of the long Kaftan-like national dress, the del, which has its silk on the outside and the sheepskin on the inside lining, the daring aerobatics of accomplished boy horse riders, and the exuberant holiday atmosphere of the May Day parade.

 

Passing through Moscow 22 years after our first posting there was both fascinating and revealing. Our stay between the inward Aeroflot flight and embarking on the Trans-Siberian was necessarily short, a day and a half only, but that was long enough to register the improvements – the better clothing of the passersby, the bustling, crowded hotels and restaurants, where the prosperous élite, both Russian and Soviet bloc visitors, foregather, the apparent freedom of the youth to engage in conversation and even to bargain for my son’s fur-lined motorcycle boots, and the more helpful attitude of the police in directing us to our old home in the street near Krasnie Vorota which no longer bore the same name. Clearly nowadays some relaxation and the outside trappings of freedom are tolerated, provided that the all-powerful control of the Party is not challenged and no one steps ideologically out of line.

 

The Trans-Siberian took 5 days and 5 nights to bring us to Ulan Bator. It maintained a remarkable punctuality at each of the 40 odd stations and halts on the way, even in the depths of the Siberian winter. At each halt the train would cut down on the allotted 20 minutes if it was running late, and woe betide anyone who had gone to the station Kiosk to buy eggs or other provisions. The station guard, often a woman, who also had the responsibility for the safety of the line to the next halt, would wave the train on, with scant regard for those passengers who had alighted for a breath of fresh air and who would sprint to jump into the last coach as the train moved out. A longer stay was made at Omsk, although the town seemed to be mainly a collection of wooden houses stretching up the hill-side as far as the eye could see, and at Novosibirsk, a much more substantial town and important scientific research station.

 

Our compartment, dating from Tsarist times, was warm and comfortable, and we could settle down happily to enjoying our enforced leisure, under the watchful but benevolent eye of the lady in charge of the coach, and its samovar at the end of the corridor, who seemed just as keen to protect and keep us supplied with fresh tea from the samovar as to watch over our contacts with our fellow passengers. We spent much time gazing out of the windows at the Siberian winter scene, a bleak endless expanse of desolate, snow-bound tundra or forest, with no metalled roads, and only the occasional snowed-up truck, seemingly coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Siberian pines were interspersed with larch and Scots pines, and silver birch grew plentifully, their trunks twisted from the intense frost, in copses dispersed along the whole length of the line. Otherwise the vast whiteness was unbroken except for a wooden cottage here and there, surrounded by fencing intended to keep the snow at bay, but more often than not bowed down under its weight. This unending emptiness seemed far from the Soviet Government’s drive to industrialise Siberia and exploit its immense known resources in oil, coal, timber and precious metals. Certainly the great difficulties – the inhospitable climate and permafrost, the vast distances and intractable nature of much of the terrain, and the reluctance of workers to go there willingly will always militate against its full development and exploitation of its resources, but industries and industrial communities are growing up rapidly near the mineral fields and sources of hydroelectric power. It is most unlikely that an extensive network of roads as we know them in the West will ever be achieved, and the settlements will be fed mainly by branch lines from the Trans-Siberian lifeline and eventually the BAM (Baikal-Amur) railway.

 

To counter the long hours of sitting without exercise, we at first used the halts to alight and walk vigorously up and down the platform, but the novelty wore off as we realised that there was a risk of the train’s leaving without us, and that in any case we had to spend much more time than the odd 15 minutes available for the exercise wrestling to get into our woollen underware and the heavy winter clothing needed to ward off the searing cold.

 

The close confines of the Trans-Siberian create its own particular kind of camaraderie among the passengers. Red Army officers in mufti going out as technical advisers to outlying parts of Mongolia, and Soviet and Eastern bloc advisers and teachers returning to their posts, all promised extra money and perquisites for undertaking their assignments, seemed only too anxious to share their lot and engage in a non-controversial chat in the corridors or the Mecca of everybody, the restaurant car, although conversation there was much more inhibited by concentration on the food, the slow service, and not least the sharp scrutiny of the head waiter. The food was plentiful, though monotonous after a while, but a strange disrupting mealtime routine seemed to take a grip on everybody as we moved further East. The train remains on Moscow time throughout the whole length of the journey, for reasons which were never explained to us, so that the further East we went, the later the meals were served. Breakfast thus slipped back later and later, until by the time we were approaching Irkutsk it was being served nearer midday! And everybody conformed to this bizarre ritual in spite of their pangs of hunger; they even seemed to relish the chance it gave them of turning up at midday in their pyjamas.

 

The train was divided at Ulan Ude, capital of Buryat Mongolia, and the Ulan Bator section was uncoupled and shunted on to the line going South. This was the signal for elaborate preparations to be made as if for a siege. Everything moveable was cleared and locked away, the restaurant car was taken off, and the passengers were issued with eggs, yoghurt and black bread for the next morning’s breakfast on the run-in into Ulan Bator. The main part of the train continues its journey Eastwards along the Southern shores of the legendary Lake Baikal, that vast stretch of water ranking among the deepest and widest lakes of the world. Though now threatened with industrial pollution, which the authorities are doing everything in their power to control, the lake teems with its own distinctive flora and fauna, and feeds the great Angara River and its hydroelectric plants. Further East, the train will run parallel with, and not far from the contentious and heavily armed Sino-Soviet border, a weak strategic point in the defence of the Soviet Far East, which the Government are making strenuous efforts to remedy by the construction of the ambitious BAM railway much further North.

 

It was bitterly cold as we alighted that December morning on the ice-covered platform of Ulan Bator station, and I could feel the cold penetrating my sheepskin-lined boots and thick woollen stockings as we were welcomed by the Mongolian Head of Protocol. The moisture was freezing in our nostrils, we were blinking through a thin veil of ice crystals, and our breath froze in mist with each exhalation. No wonder the Head of Protocol quickly dispensed with the formalities and briskly referred the ceremonial to a later date, when I would present my credentials to President Sambu.

 

The Mongolian climate in winter is dominated by the fierce Siberian cold, which often reaches -40°C and can drop even down to -60°C. In that intensity of frost one does not go out, but at higher temperatures still well below freezing the air is generally still, and provided that one is adequately dressed, in long johns, woollens, furs, and silk inside the sheepskin gloves, a walk in the crisp air and sunshine can be exhilarating. Ulan Bator is situated between Siberia and the Gobi Desert, which in summer generates a dry, arid heat and occasional storms. It lies on the edge of the tree belt, which affects the vegetation on the surrounding hills, so that it is common to see hills whose Northern side is clad in pines, while the slopes facing South and exposed to the sun are barren of trees and shrubs. The countryside is mostly upland steppe interspersed with marshland and rivers, which when frozen solid in winter form smooth highways for the lorries, much more satisfactory and quicker than the rough roads. The steppe is covered in spring with edelweiss, gentian and many other alpine species. It provides very good grazing for the cattle – yaks, horses, sheep and goats, and a heavy cross between buffalo and yak called the haynag – which are tended by the herdsmen out in the open all the year round. The total herd adds up to some 27 million head of cattle, which is a lot for a population of less than 2 million, so that corralling or providing enough fodder for the winter is hardly a practical possibility. The mixed herds simply roam the countryside, and if the winter is not too severe, survive from the very fact that they are mixed. The horses and larger beasts paw through the frozen snow with their heavier hooves and graze off their preferred grasses, while the smaller goats and sheep follow on and feed on the different grasses which are suited to them. In the worst winters, however, successive layers of icing and frozen snow can make an impenetrable barrier which even the heavy animals find it hard to break through. In these atrocious conditions known as the dzud, 3 million head of cattle, or 10% of the whole heard, have been known to perish. Corralling and the production of enough fodder would be most valuable improvements to their husbandry, if they could be achieved.

 

Survival in Mongolia’s harsh conditions demands toughness, and the Mongolians are indeed a tough race, proud, ruggedly independent, and fired with a love for the steppe’s distant horizons. They are nomads at heart, wedded to the simple life in their round tents, or yurts, even when many have become bureaucrats and office workers, and even in spite of an increasing drift into the towns to swell the urban population. The blocks of flats behind the Ulan Bator Hotel where we lived were largely inhabited by civil servants. Come the first of June, and many flats would empty as the great exodus to the countryside began. They had chosen to pass the summer out in the country within reach of the capital, and to commute to work each day over the badly surfaced and pot-holed roads; it sufficed simply to find a lush valley with a pure stream running through it, and they were content to pitch their yurt there and then.

 

They are great horse lovers and horse riders, learning to ride in their early childhood, and perfecting their art in their teens, until they are as much at home riding on the horse’s side or under its belly as in the saddle. All-in wrestling is another favourite sport, reminding one of the huge Japanese wrestlers or our own colossi, as their oiled, fleshy torsos lock together in a combat of giants. They are also gifted in the gentler arts of music and painting, which closely resembles the Tibetan school; their rich and thriving literature cannot unfortunately be known in the West except to a few specialists because of the difficulty of their unique language. The faithful are Lama Buddhists, and are allowed to practise their faith, and pray, in an ascetic and self-debasing sort of way, on hard wooden trestles, at the few surviving pagodas. Their closest relationship, if they had a choice, would be to the Chinese, not only because of their most natural channel for the trade and the supply of silk for their national costume is with China, but also because of the deep cultural affinities, and simply because they are Orientals together.

 

We were by Mongolian standards privileged to be lodged in the Ulan Bator hotel, for which I was to be the last Ambassador to preside over an Embassy which had both its offices and the staff’s living accommodation in the Hotel. The suites of rooms were presentable and comfortable, and facing South had the benefit of the sunshine, without the biting winds which made the offices facing North so cold in spite of the double glazing and an efficient central heating system, which carries the heat from the town power station throughout the city. The servants were friendly and very helpful, especially the maid Nomensol, who still remained slim and youthful in spite of her four little girls (all incidentally named after different berries), and the chauffeur Batsukh, who would bring us presents of onions and other salad things in the spring, if he could find them himself. A tall, strong figure of a man conscious of his own worth as an individual, and without any fear of the many difficulties, bad roads and tracks, iced-up rivers and swampy terrain – or simply officialdom. Of course there was constant surveillance, by the otherwise kindly lady at the end of the corridor, and by more sophisticated means. The restaurant, run in our time by a succession of despairing East Europeans, left much to be desired. Koumiss, a green fermented mare’s milk, was available for those who fancied it, but the staple diet was fatty mutton in all its forms, cold, roast, stew, any way other than tasty curry which might have gone down more readily. When after a while we sought a change, we would find the diplomatic shop very short of provisions, except for frozen carcasses, from which the butcher would hack whichever piece we chose without really knowing what it was. The Russians had their own shops, well-stocked with every conceivable food, to which they admitted their East European colleagues, but to which we were never invited. It was essential to augment our supplies from an export house either in Denmark or Hong Kong, which we did once or twice a year, paying 100% on the cost of the items for freightage on the Trans-Siberian or via the port of Nakhodka. It was a red letter day when the consignment arrived, but regrettably the stores seemed to last far too short a time.

 

I often wonder how my successors and their staffs fared in the Embassy building, which was being prepared and renovated in my time to house the entire staff, the offices and recreational facilities. It is by Mongolian standards a substantial building, towards the Soviet Embassy on the road out to the East, and we were lucky to be offered it, because the Cuban Ambassador who had lived there before took one look at Mongolia and the cold, did not like what he saw, and made a precipitate retreat back to sunny Havana. It was admittedly in a very poor state when we took it over. Houses in Mongolia cannot have ventilation running under the floors for fear of the occupants freezing to death (the very opposite of the wooden houses on stilts in Laos, where the air circulating all round the house keeps the occupants cool); they must be constructed directly on the ground, with the result that dry rot had taken possession and run like wildfire through every beam, which all needed replacement. But I can imagine it being a very agreeable home when completed by the Ministry of Works. Its siting gave it a particularly Mongolian atmosphere, just opposite a large yurt settlement, each yurt supplied with electricity, chimney to let out the smoke from the open hearths, and water bought in by municipal tanks twice a week. It appears that some 40% of Ulan Bator’s population are still housed in yurt encampments similar to that opposite the Embassy, for the influx from the countryside cannot all be accommodated in the existing blocks of flats and wooden dwellings, or by the building programme. Not that the residents would complain about living in a yurt, which is as much part of them as the steppe, their horses and their herds.

 

Sukhe Bator Square, named after their national hero who gave them independence in 1921, is the centre of Ulan Bator, an imposing wide-open space suitable for an evening stroll past some fine buildings, the Government offices, cinema, and theatre and opera house constructed by Japanese prisoners of war after 1945, and the Ulan Bator Hotel built by the Chinese, along with the Departmental Store and several attractive blocks of flats, before the Sino-Soviet rift put an end to their activities in the early 1960’s. An inviting garden runs along its South side, in which the trees and shrubs have been planted, and which is scrupulously maintained, by the voluntary efforts of young members of the community.

 

The theatre provided the mainstay of the evening entertainment. Sometimes a mixed blessing, we would be invited very frequently and always at short notice, to the celebration of one or other of the many feast days in the Soviet calendar, Mother’s Day, Red Army Day, etc. The boxes were invariably occupied by the diplomatic corps in order of precedence, that is their degree of loyalty to the Soviet Union. In the first box the Russians with their faithful acolytes the Bulgarians, in the second and third the East Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, in the fourth the recalcitrant Romanians and Yugoslavs, and finally in the last box the hapless British Ambassador and his wife along with the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires and his interpreter. The routine was always the same, an excruciatingly long speech in Mongolian, followed by a break for refreshments of mineral water and sweets, then the real show, sometimes a boring ideological opera or mime, but more often an exquisite spectacle of dancing and music, singing in a style close to the Chinese, or a concert played in unison by an orchestra of young, pig-tailed girls on their long and unique Mongolian lutes.  Unfortunately, the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires and his interpreter never got to see the show, for every speech contained insulting remarks against Mao Tse Tung and his “running dogs of imperialism”. Long before this passage was reached, the interpreter had marked it in the Russian translation, and when the speaker got there, the two would stand up, stamp their feet to make as much noise as possible, overturn their chairs, and slam the door or the box as hard as they could as they left. An awkward pause and embarrassed silence would ensue, for the Chinese Chargé had yet again been made to lose face, and this was the last thing their fellow Orientals, left to their own devices, would have wished to do.

 

The Chinese representation was kept to very small numbers and on a low key because of the Sino-Soviet dispute. They remained proudly aloof, with the minimum of social intercourse. In general, however, there was a relaxed atmosphere between the diplomatic colleagues. I was the only Western representative in a corps made up almost exclusively of Soviet bloc representatives, with the exception of my French friend Monsieur Peruch, who came out at regular intervals, while preferring to spend most of his time in Mongolian affairs at the Quai d’Orsay. The Russians and their wives were friendly whenever we met, and had a most charming and gifted additional Ambassadress in Madame Filatova, the wife of the Head of State, Tsedenbal. The Hungarian doyen, who had already been there seven years, the Poles, who were most of the time out of favour because of the Jewish entraction of M. Gomulka, the Czechs immediately before the events leading up to the Soviet invasion of their country in 1968, and the East Germans, who welcomed anyone speaking German, all made friendly gestures, but it was the Romanians and Yugoslavs, each pursuing their own independent path to Communism, who made most effort to keep up a normal social relationship. The Oriental representatives kept very much to themselves, mixing only with each other – including the Chinese.

 

It was a narrow, forced social circuit, from which we sought a respite, whenever possible, in the open air. The lovely valley of Nukht a few kilometres West would invite us to its sheltered seclusion, to its snow-laden pines and silver birches, and the tits chirping in the branches. The rolling hills and valleys on the North side made an ideal setting for picnics, and picnicking round a bonfire on the frozen river became a favourite pastime. The cold never seemed to worry us, and as the days grew warmer, we would find time to search for alpine plants, or watch the horseriders, or the herdsmen tending their horses and cattle. An idyllic, simple nomadic life, if only climatic conditions had not been so hard.

 

The Mongolian People’s Republic is under the firm domination of the Soviet Union, to whom she is a valuable buffer protecting its Siberian borders against the Chinese, and a bastion of Soviet power in the Far East. The Red Army is everywhere in evidence, and little effort is made to disguise their heavy armament and missile sites. Moreover, when Mongolia’s traditional trade links with China were severed by the Sino-Soviet conflict, she turned to the Soviet Union and her East European allies for economic help, and joined Comecon in 1962. The Soviet Union responded with massive technical aid and heavy investment, in return for the military advantages. Hundreds of technical advisers were sent out, and a large programme of heavy technical work was carried out, mainly by Red Army Soldiers, so that they were, and probably still are, very much in evidence in the capital and elsewhere, engaged in building flats, constructing electricity power lines, and other heavy work. The East Europeans contribute to the development of light industry, for instance meat canning, an East German initiative in co-operation with an English firm, which does away with the necessity of driving the cattle on the hoof into Siberia for slaughter.

 

All this aid has helped the Mongolian people to develop their economy and to make rapid strides forward in electrification, coal production, and other fields, and has brought a certain prosperity most evident in the towns. But at a price, for Mongolia is now tied to the Soviet bloc economically as well as militarily. Ninety-five percent of her trade is with the Comecon, and 90% of her exports go to Russia. Small wonder then that a temporary flirting early in 1968 with national Communism on the model of Yugoslavia and Romania at the time of Tito’s state visit was as shortlived as Dubcek’s attempt later that year. The Foreign Minister at that time M. Dugersuren was despatched as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and replaced as Foreign Minister by the hardline head of the Ministry’s Soviet department M. Toiv, and Mongolia had returned to the Soviet fold.

 

What of the future? Mongolia seems set on a path of steady development if only from the sheer weight of the Soviet bloc presence there. But there are, as one would expect in a fundamentally nomadic society, inevitable brakes on the rate of progress. More education and technical training are badly needed, and measures are urgently required to curb the rapid rise in imports of consumer and luxury goods and the consequent inflationary pressures and adverse balance of payments. The flight from the land to the urban areas will also have to be checked to ensure that the small farming population remains adequate for the large size of the herds. A lot will be demanded of Comecon in countering these difficulties.

 

Our contribution was necessarily very modest. We would have liked more direct trade in such commodities as fine quality Kashmir wool, or more acceptance of such advanced machinery as modern sheep shearing equipment, but the Russians always stood in the way, insisting that any trade should be conducted not direct, but exclusively through them. In addition to the meat canning plant, however, we have succeeded in maintaining a thriving interchange of students of English at Leeds University.

 

In spite of all the hardship, we spent a happy time among the simple, nomadic and highly gifted people of Mongolia, and were sorry to leave. We wish them every success and prosperity in the future.